Exports rose 14.1 per cent in December from a year earlier, the fastest in seven months and well above November’s 2.9 per cent pace. Imports increased 6 per cent in December from a year earlier after flatlining in November. Both figures outstripped most forecasts.
“This reconfirms the upward economic momentum in the fourth quarter,” said Shuang Ding, an economist with Citi. “The gap between exports and imports indicates that net exports are an important contributing factor to gross domestic product.”
The Chinese economy is expected to have rebounded towards 8 per cent growth in the fourth quarter of last year. That rebound would follow seven consecutive quarters of slowing growth. China’s full-year growth figure is set to be its lowest in more than a decade.
The wider trade surplus provides an important source of growth for the Chinese economy, which has suffered a contraction in external demand since the global financial crisis erupted in 2008. It also suggests that China’s key export markets, including the US and Europe, found a slightly more stable footing towards the end of 2012.
China exports to Europe rose 2.3 per cent year on year in December, a sharp turnround from an 18 per cent fall a month earlier. Exports to the US jumped to 10.3 per cent growth from a fall of 2.6 per cent in November.
Lan Shen, an economist with Standard Chartered said: “This reflects strong sales momentum during the year-end holiday season [in the US and Europe].”
Analysts say the more subdued import growth compared with exports indicates that Chinese companies are still working their way through large inventories, especially of raw materials.
In spite of the slowing growth, China still reported record highs on the year for its imports of crude oil, iron ore and copper.
The stronger than expected numbers buoyed investor sentiment, with the Shanghai Composite, China’s main stock index, jumping 0.5 per cent when the trade data were published. Other Asian stock markets also gained ground.
The question now for China is whether the rebound in both exports and imports will be sustainable. Zheng Yusheng, a spokesman for the customs administration sounded an optimistic note.
“China still faces uncertainties in 2013,” he said. “But we expect the trade situation will be relatively better compared to 2012.”
But with the US facing rancorous debt-ceiling negotiations and Europe still mired in uncertainty, it would not take much for China’s export picture to darken.
“External demand remains a key risk to China’s growth outlook,” said Yu Song, an analyst with Goldman Sachs.
Within China, it is also unclear whether the government will step up growth-supportive measures, which would provide a boost for imports, or will prioritise its efforts to control inflation.
Other data released on Thursday showed that new bank lending in December was Rmb454bn ($72.9bn), about Rmb100bn shy of forecasts, a shortfall that indicates the government could already be trying to rein in credit to prevent a jump in inflation. Non-bank credit issuance remained extremely strong – roughly double the amount of traditional bank loans – but some analysts believe the government could soon tighten these financing channels.
“We expect the stance to tighten gradually in 2013, as regulators tighten controls on shadow banking activities and bond issuance,” said Zhang Zhiwei, an economist with Nomura.